Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How To Learn To Dance

[This post brought to you by Structured Procrastination.]

I used to teach swing dance. To many of my students watching me dance, it looked like what made me an excellent dancer was my extensive vocabulary. I seemed to know all the moves. It didn't matter what the lead threw at me. I always knew how to respond. "How many years did it take you to learn all those moves?" they'd sometimes ask.

It used to be that when I was watching much stronger rationalists than myself, I'd get a similar feeling. Whatever their goals and whatever obstacles they encountered, they seemed to know exactly the right technique to deal with it. Like they somehow knew every possible move.

Thinking about my dance students, I recognize that it's a totally reasonable mistake to make. They were learning swing dance themselves, and what was I teaching in their class? Basic step, inside turn, outside turn, transition from open to closed position, etc. Explicitly, I was teaching them more and more moves.

Implicitly, I was trying to teach them how to dance, which to any experienced dancer does not mean knowing a lot of moves. I had to teach them a few standard movement patterns so they'd have something to work with. But when I design a lesson series, my focus is always, unwavering, on conveying a few central principles of swing dance and partner dance generally.

I think I've recently reached a level of cognitive development where I'm starting to see deeper patterns in other peoples' arts as rationalists. What makes them great is not how many moves they know. That might be correlated, but the central principles that allow them to employ those techniques reliably, and to create entirely new techniques as circumstances require, lie elsewhere. Finding them is surely more valuable than any specific technique.

When I taught all those moves in dance classes, my deeper purpose was to teach pulse, partner connection, playfulness, and musicality. In that order. I taught the basic pattern of six-count swing--step, step, rock-step--so the students could practice pulsing in time with the beat of the music while moving their feet. I taught the transition from open to closed position so the lead could practice requesting something of the follow using only his body (asking her to come toward him, in this case), and the follow could practice listening for, understanding, and responding to such requests.

I occasionally gave them unusual restrictions, like, "When you dance this song, the only part of your partner's body you can touch is their elbow, and you can only touch it with your elbow." This was not to teach them elbow-based moves. It was to cut them off from all their cached moves, so they had to experiment, to play together with their partner.

I taught brief segments of choreography and had the students dance that same string of moves to a lot of different songs, not so they would have a cool string of moves to pull out at any time, but so they could practice dancing the same moves differently, according to what they felt in the music. Does the song call for sharp, precise movements, or languid, flowing movements? Does the outside turn fall in a measure with a strong emphasis, or should it be small and understated? What if the lead dances to the clarinet while the follow dances to the fiddle? Does this string of moves simply feel wrong when danced to this song? That's musicality.

What makes me a great dancer, and a great follow in particular, cannot possibly be my vocabulary. Sometimes I go to dances with completely unfamiliar vocabularies--salsa, tango, waltz--and even then I stand out as a highly skilled follow. I don't know beforehand the standard "signal" a lead would give in Salsa to indicate that I should step backward. I wasn't in the class where they taught that. I don't need to know those sorts of things, though, if I can establish a strong enough partner connection.

I imagine that a master rationalist who happens to have never heard of "goal factoring" probably doesn't really need anybody to explain it to her. There will surely remain gaps in her art that can be filled simply by pointing them out, so maybe she will benefit from hearing the term. But I doubt she stands to gain much from taking a class on goal factoring.

In the first twenty seconds of a dance, I will learn how to dance with my lead. I'll learn the way he moves, what aspects of the music he prefers to express, the patterns of tension and relaxation in his muscles, how his rhythm shifts slightly when he's about to break a pattern he'd established earlier. And by reading his reactions to my responses, I'll learn how those things correspond to his intentions.

It's not a conscious process; it feels very much like I'm simply reading his mind. One of the highest complements I ever get on my dancing is when a lead tells me that it feels to him as though I'm reading his mind. Once your partner connection becomes that strong, classes on how to execute various moves are superfluous.

What is the equivalent of partner connection in rationality? I'm not sure. I have some vague guesses, but at this point I think I'm only dimly aware that there is one.

I expect that the primary value of this analogy, though, is in the path to mastery it suggests, the methods of training that will eventually lead me to mastery of the central principles, whatever they are.


I think in the beginning, shortly after encountering the Sequences and CFAR, I implicitly believed that becoming a strong rationalist meant gaining all the important insights. I thought it meant having a toolbox and filling it with more and better tools. Like feeling the lead's right hand go up, and knowing to execute the steps of the "outside turn" I learned last week.

And how does one gain a new tool? Why, one browses the aisles of the rationalist hardware store and picks up whatever looks shiny and affordable. The point of reading another Sequence article or attending another CFAR class is to pick up a new cognitive procedure, so you can retrieve it from your toolbox when the situation calls for that particular tool. Right?

Maybe, but not if the analogy to mastering dance is accurate.

I didn't become the kind of dancer I am by taking a lot of classes or reading a lot of books on dance. I did it by dancing.

It certainly is important that I took a lot of classes, especially in the beginning. But not so much because of the classes themselves. When I was traveling to dance workshops and conferences every weekend, I was dancing constantly with new partners of all styles and skill levels, and thinking always about the next weakness I needed to overcome as a dancer. All of that dancing gave me lots of data on myself as a dancer, and I would use it to set specific intentions designed to address my main weakness before each dance.

For example, I once thought, "My bottleneck right now seems to be that I dance heavily, which makes fast tempos almost impossible. Maybe simply imagining that I am as light as a feather will fix it. Today, I'll experiment with dancing like objects of various weights. A feather, an elephant, a bouncy ball, a bowling ball."

So almost all of my training occurred on the social dance floor by constant focused experimentation. I eventually caught on to this and started saving money by traveling to workshops just to attend the social dances, rather than paying for the lesson series on top of it.

I also hung out with other dancers at dinner and during breaks, and was especially friendly with dancers with more skill and experience than I had. Since dancers never shut up about dance when they're around other dancers, I did my best to absorb all of their wisdom. Improving in this way was almost never a matter of gaining a totally new insight or hearing a fact I didn't already know about dance. I was not shopping for tools to add to my toolbox. Rather, hearing about the experiences and interests of others influenced my own improvisation. It suggested experiments I'd otherwise not have thought of, or inspired questions about myself as a dancer that it hadn't before occurred to me to ask.

This is how I've been approaching rationality of late. I choose one particular weakness to focus on. I look for opportunities to observe myself making the associated mistakes. I set a specific intention to respond in a particular way the next few times. I watch what happens, and then I let that experience influence my next experiment.

There are other things influencing the experimentation process, of course. My friends, my mentors, blog posts, books. The same sources I've always relied on in my training as a rationalist. What has changed is that I'm not really looking for answers from them anymore. I don't expect them to hand me exactly the right tool to solve my problem. It's great when they can, but it's rare, and it's not their job anyway. I'm the one inside my head. Instead, I consider them inputs to which I can respond as I improvise.

I've been trying to focus for the past couple weeks on things other than my weaknesses in case I can learn to teach them, or use my observations about them to boost my learning process in the future. I've come to the end of a particular series of experiments though, and it seems that my brain has automatically reverted to studying a salient weakness. Like it or not, I'm now improvising on the theme of noticing confusion. I observe mistakes carefully, I ask new questions, I keep my ears open for related bits of advice from others, and I try out new ways of responding, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes on a whim. Just like I did with dance.


In dance, I can respond instantly to instructions never encountered before, or to nuances in songs of unfamiliar styles. I've molded my own patterns of thought and feeling to partner connection, playfulness, and musicality. It's not that I've somehow fit every possible tool into my toolbox. It's that I myself have become a fully versatile instrument of dance. (A far from perfect one, but the point is that I've moved a long way in that direction.)

Taking classes to learn new moves can definitely be useful, especially when you're first starting out. But it is not a recipe for indefinite progress at an increasing rate, and that is the sort of thing I will need to become a fully versatile instrument of rationality.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

I notice I'm confused about noticing that I'm confused.

(h/t Julia Galef for making me aware of the photo via her excellent TAM talk)

I haven't made "noticing and responding appropriately to confusion" a special explicit focus of my training as a rationalist so far, so I expect there are several things I'm doing wrong that will become obvious quickly upon closer inspection. But I think I just realized a huge mistake I've been making anyway.

When I am confused, I focus on the thing that I am confused about. I know it means I believe something false, and I want to find out what that thing is. My automatic procedure for doing so is, "Investigate the object of confusion for clues to my false belief, then search nearby objects for clues."

In Zen terms, I'm looking at the pointing finger instead of at the moon.

Check out this image. Look at it for a while, if you've never seen it before, before reading on.

I noticed the rock immediately, and I flagged it as confusing. My automatic interpretation was, "Someone threw a rock at that raccoon, and it's about to get hit, oh no!" That felt like an awfully strange, though, so I took a really close look at the rock. I started looking at other elements of the picture. I couldn't find anything strange about it (although I do see a strange thing now that I know what's up with this picture), so I looked around within the picture for other clues. I noticed that the raccoon on the left didn't have the dark markings around its eyes I'm used to raccoons having. I noticed the raccoons are in a slightly unusual environment for the species, since I think of them as preferring to be hidden and in low places.

I did not ask myself, "What do I believe about this picture that makes me confused about the rock? What are other possible interpretations of this picture? If it's not the case that that raccoon is about to be hit by a rock, what else might be going on?"

Upon noticing confusion, I've been going through these mental motions: "Don't ignore or rationalize the confusion. Pay attention to it. Be curious about what false things you believe." It's like I've been putting off examining my own beliefs for errors by examining my observations.

Next time, I'll try this: "If I notice that I am confused, then I will state what I believe about the situation that forbids the confusing thing, and then generate alternative hypotheses. Only then will I examine the situation closely to see which hypothesis best fits my observations."

Correct movement: Notice which of my beliefs forbids the confusing thing.
Incorrect movement: Look really hard at the confusing thing.

I suppose I did manage to look at the moon, though, when my response to having noticed confusion about this picture failed to lead me to the correct answer. "I'm confused about noticing confusion. Am I noticing confusion wrong? How do I actually notice confusion? How else should I maybe be doing it?"

ETA: Apparently it was not obvious to some that I intend for you to work out for yourself what's actually going on with the rock. Here's a hint: Suppose I'd swapped "clouds" for "moon".

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What It's Like To Notice Things


Phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. Literally, it is the study of "that which appears". The first time you look at a twig sticking up out of the water, you might be curious and ask, "What forces cause things to bend when placed in water?" If you're a curious phenomenologist, though, you'll ask things like, "Why does that twig in water appear as though bent? Do other things appear to bend when placed in water? Do all things placed in water appear to bend to the same degree? Are there things that do not appear to bend when placed in water? Does my perception of the bending depend on the angle or direction from which I observe the twig?"

Pehenomenology means breaking experience down to its more basic components, and being precise in our descriptions of what we actually observe, free of further speculation and assumption. A phenomenologist recognizes the difference between observing "a six-sided cube", and observing the three faces, at most, from which we extrapolate the rest.

I consider phenomenology to be a central skill of rationality. The most obvious example: You're unlikely to generate alternative hypotheses when the confirming observation and the favored hypothesis are one and the same in your experience of experience. The importance of phenomenology to rationality goes deeper than that, though. Phenomenology trains especially fine grained introspection. The more tiny and subtle are the thoughts you're aware of, the more precise can be the control you gain over the workings of your mind, and the faster can be your cognitive reflexes.

(I do not at all mean to say that you should go read Husserl and Heidegger. Despite their apparent potential for unprecedented clarity, the phenomenologists, without exception, seem to revel in obfuscation. It's probably not worth your time to wade through all of that nonsense. I've mostly read about phenomenology myself for this very reason.)

I've been doing some experimental phenomenology of late.


I've noticed that rationality, in practice, depends on noticing. Some people have told me this is basically tautological, and therefore uninteresting. But if I'm right, I think it's likely very important to know, and to train deliberately.

The difference between seeing the twig as bent and seeing the twig as seeming bent may seem inane. It is not news that things that are bent tend to seem bent. Without that level of granularity in your observations, though, you may not notice that it could be possible for things to merely seem bent without being bent. When we're talking about something that may be ubiquitous to all applications of rationality, like noticing, it's worth taking a closer look at the contents of our experiences.

Many people talk about "noticing confusion", because Eliezer's written about it. Really, though, every successful application of a rationality skill begins with noticing. In particular, applied rationality is founded on noticing opportunities and obstacles. (To be clear, I'm making this up right this moment, so as far as I know it's not a generally agreed-upon thing. That goes for nearly everything in this post. I still think it's true.) You can be the most technically skilled batter in the world, and it won't help a bit if you consistently fail to notice when the ball whizzes by you--if you miss the opportunities to swing. And you're not going to run very many bases if you launch the ball straight at an opposing catcher--if you're oblivious to the obstacles.

It doesn't matter how many techniques you've learned if you miss all the opportunities to apply them, and fail to notice the obstacles when they get in your way. Opportunities and obstacles are everywhere. We can only be as strong as our ability to notice the ones that will make a difference.

Inspired by Whales' self-experiment in noticing confusion, I've been practicing noticing things. Not difficult or complicated things, like noticing confusion, or noticing biases. I've just been trying to get a handle on noticing, full stop. And it's been interesting.

Noticing Rain

I started by checking to see what I expected it to feel like to notice that it's raining, just going from memory. (It doesn't rain much in Berkeley, so it had been a while.) I tried for a split-second prediction, to find what my brain automatically stored under "noticing rain". When I thought about noticing rain, I got this sort of vague impression of rainyness, which included few sensory details and was more of an overall rainy feeling. My brain tried to tell me that "noticing rain" meant "being directly aquainted with rainyness", in much the same way that it tries to tell me it's experiencing a cube when it's actually only experiencing a pattern of light and shadows I interpret as three faces. I could have reasoned carefully and worked out a far more accurate prediction, but that's not what I was after.

Then, I waited for rain. It didn't take long, because I'm in North Carolina for the month.

The real "noticing rain" turned out to be a response to the physical sensations concurrent with the first raindrop falling on my skin. I did eventually have an "abstract rainyness feeling", but that happened a full two seconds later. My actual experience went like this.

It was cloudy and humid. This was not at the forefront of my attention, but it slowly moved in that direction as the temperature dropped. I was fairly focused on reading a book.

(I'm a little baffled by the apparent gradient between "not at all conscious of x" and "fully aware of x". I don't know how that works, but I experience the difference between being a little aware of the sky being cloudy and being focused on the patterns of light in the clouds, as analogous to the difference between being very-slightly-but-not-uncomfortably warm and burning my hand on the stove.)

My awareness of something like an "abstract rainyness feeling" moved further toward consciousness as the wind picked up. Suddenly--and the suddenness was an important part of the experience--I felt something like a cool, dull pin-prick on my arm. I looked at it, saw the water, and recognized it as a raindrop. Over the course of about half a second, several sensations leapt forward into full awareness: the darkness of my surroundings, the humidity in the air, the dark grey-blueness of the sky, the sound of rain on leaves like television static, the scent of ozone and damp earth, the feeling of cool humid wind on my face, and the word "rain" in my internal monologue.

I think it is that sudden leaping forward of many associated sensations that I would call "noticing rain".

After that, I felt a sort of mental step backward--though it was more like a zooming out or sliding away than a discrete step--from the sensations, and then a feeling of viewing them from the outside. There was a sensation of the potential to access other memories of times when it's rained.

(Sensations of potential are fascinating to me. I noticed a few weeks ago that after memorizing a list of names and faces, I could predict in the first half second of seeing the face whether or not I'd be able to retrieve the name in the next five seconds. Before I actually retrieved the name. What??? I don't know either.)

Only then did all of it resolve into the more distant and abstract "feeling of rainyness" that I'd predicted before. The resolution took four times as long as the simultaneous-leaping-into-consciousness-of-related-sensations that I now prefer to call "noticing", and ten times as long as the first-raindrop-pin-prick, which I think I'll call the "noticing trigger" if it turns out to be a general class of pre-noticing experiences.

("Can you really distinguish between 200 and 500 milliseconds?" Yes, but it's an acquired skill. I spent a block of a few minutes every day for a month, then several blocks a day for about a week, doing this Psychomotor Vigiliance Task when I was gathering data for the polyphasic sleep experiment. It gives you fast feedback on simple response time. I'm not sure if it's useful for anything else, but it comes in handy when taking notes on experiences that pass very quickly.)

Noticing Red Barn Roofs

My second experiment was in repeated noticing. This is more closely related to rationality as habit cultivation.

I was trying to zoom in on the experience of noticing itself, so I wanted something as simple as possible. Nothing subtle, nothing psychological, and certainly nothing I might be motivated to ignore. I wanted a straightforward element of my physical environment. I'm out in the country and driving around for errands and such about once a day, so I went with "red barn roofs".

I had an intuition that I should give myself some outward sign of having noticed, lest I not notice that I noticed (if that's possible), and decided to snap my fingers every time I noticed a red barn roof.

On the first drive, I noticed one red barn roof. That happened when I was almost at my destination and I thought, "Oh right, I'm supposed to be noticing red barn roofs, oops" then started actively searching for them. 

Noticing a red barn roof while searching for it feels very different from noticing rain while reading a book. With the rain, it felt sort of like waking up, or like catching my name in an overheard conversation. There was a complete shift in what my brain was doing. With the barn roof, it was like I had a box with a red-barn-roof-shaped hole, and it felt like completion when a I grabbed a roof and dropped it through the hole. I was prepared for the roof, and it was a smaller change in the contents of consciousness.

I noticed two on the way back, also while actively searching for them, before I started thinking about something else and became oblivious.

I thought that maybe there weren't enough red barn roofs, and decided to try noticing red roofs of all sorts of buildings the next day. This, it turns out, was the correct move.

On day two of red-roof-noticing, I got lots of practice. I noticed around fifteen roofs on the way to the store, and around seven on the way back. By the end, I was not searching for the roofs as intently as I had been the day before, but I was still explicitly thinking about the project. I was still aware of directing my eyes to spend extra time at the right level in my field of vision to pick up roofs. It was like waving the box around and waiting for something to fall in, while thinking about how to build boxes.

I went out briefly again on day two, and on the way back, I noticed a red roof while thinking about something else entirely. Specifically, I was thinking about the possibility of moving to Uruguay, and whether I knew enough Spanish to survive. In the middle of one of those unrelated thoughts, my eyes moved over a barn roof and stayed there briefly while I had the leaping-into-consciousness experience with respect to the sensations of redness, recognizing something as shaped like a building, and feeling the impulse to snap my fingers. It was like I'd been wearing the box as a hat to free up my hands, and I'd forgotten about it. And then, with a heavy ker-thunk, the roof became my new center of attention.

And oh my gosh, it was so exciting! It sounds so absurd in retrospect to have been excited about noticing a roof. But I was! It meant I'd successfully installed a new cognitive habit to run in the background. On purpose. "Woo hoo! Yeah!" (I literally said that.)

On the third day, I noticed too many red roofs. I followed the same path to the store as before, but I noticed somewhere between twenty and thirty red roofs. I got about the same number going back, so I think I was catching nearly all the opportunities to notice red roofs. (I'd have to do it for a few days to be sure.) There was a pattern to noticing, where I'd notice-in-the-background, while thinking about something else, the first roof, and then I'd be more specifically on the lookout for a minute or two after that, before my mind wandered back to something other than roofs. I got faster over time at returning to my previous thoughts after snapping my fingers, but there were still enough noticed roofs to intrude uncomfortably upon my thoughts. It was getting annoying. 

So I decided to switch back to only noticing the red roofs of barns in particular.

Extinction of the more general habit didn't take very long. It was over by the end of my next fifteen minute drive. For the first three times I saw a roof, I rose my hand a little to snap my fingers before reminding myself that I don't care about non-barns anymore. The next couple times I didn't raise my hand, but still forcefully reminded myself of my disinterest in my non-barns. The promotion of red roofs into consciousness got weaker with each roof, until the difference between seeing a non-red non-barn roof and a red non-barn roof was barely perceptible. That was my drive to town today.

On the drive back, I noticed about ten red barn roofs. Three I noticed while thinking about how to install habits, four while thinking about the differences between designing exercises for in-person workshops and designing exercises to put in books, and three soon enough after the previous barn to probably count as "searching for barns".

What These Silly Tests Are Really About

My plan is to try noticing an internal psychological phenomenon next, but still something straightforward that I wouldn't be motivated not to notice. I probably need to try a couple things to find something that works well. I might go with "thinking the word 'tomorrow' in my internal monologue", for example, or possibly "wondering what my boyfriend is thinking about". I'll probably go with something more like the first, because it is clearer, and zooms in on "noticing things inside my head" without the extra noise of "noticing things that are relatively temporally indiscrete", but the second is actually a useful thing to notice.

Most of the useful things to notice are a lot less obvious than "thinking the word 'tomorrow' in my internal monologue". From what I've learned so far, I think that for "wondering what my boyfriend is thinking about", I'll need to pick out a couple of very specific, instantaneous sensations that happen when I'm curious what my boyfriend is thinking about. I expect that to be a repetition of the rain experiment, where I predict what it will feel like, then wait 'til I can gather data in real time. Once I have a specific trigger, I can repeat the red roof experiment to catch the tiny moments when I wonder what he's thinking. I might need to start with a broader category, like "notice when I'm thinking about my boyfriend", get used to noticing those sensations, and then reduce the set of sensations I'm watching out for to things that happen only when I'm curious what my boyfriend is thinking.

After that, I'd want to practice with different kinds of actions I can take when I notice a trigger. So far, I've used the physical action of snapping my fingers. That was originally for clarity in recognizing the noticing, but it's also a behavioral response to a trigger. I could respond with a psychological behavior instead of a physical one, like "imagining a carrot". A useful response to noticing that I'm curious about what my boyfriend is thinking would be "check to see if he's busy" and then "say, 'What are you thinking about?'"

See, this "noticing" thing sounds boringly simple at first, and not worth much consideration in the art of rationality. Even in his original "noticing confusion" post, Eliezer really talked more about recognizing the implications of confusion than about the noticing itself. 

Noticing is more complicated than it seems at first, and it's easy to mix it up with responding. There's a whole sub-art to noticing, and I really think that deliberate practice is making me much better at it. Responses can be hard. It's essential to make noticing as effortless as possible. Then you can break the noticing and the responding apart, so you can recognize reality even before you know what to do with it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

My Experiences With SAD Interventions

[Content note: Depression, self harm, social anxiety, eating disorders.]

Several people (at least five) have asked me recently about my experiences coping with depression. In response, I've put together a list of interventions I've tried, and what happened. There are probably lots of things missing from all parts of this list. I have a bit of a memory problem here, because I'm sort of two different people, and since the depressed version of me is sleeping, her past experiences aren't very available to me. But here are the things that are salient right now. I think I've probably gotten all the really big ones.

About my history: I've gotten depressed during the winter since puberty, and probably earlier. It's gotten worse all my life up through age 21 or so. I began purposful recovery three years ago (maybe four?) when it didn't get better during the spring.

Things that have helped me with Seasonal Affective Disorder

in order (mostly) of apparent effect size:

  • UPDATE 2/17/2016: We have a winner! Although I've tried light boxes in the past and seen no improvement, it turns out there just aren't any sufficiently powerful light boxes on the market. Eliezer built me a mighty patronus so effective that I didn't get depressed this winter at all. I'm still on bupropion, so I don't yet know if the lights are enough without that, but I plan to go off of the meds this summer and see what happens next winter. Instructions for building a LUMINATOR, as he calls it, are available here.
  • It not being winter. Duh. Didn't realize this was useful to know until it finally occurred to me that I might try moving to the southern hemisphere for the US winter. Giving that a go this time around. The plan is to come back in mid February so I can try out a few more interventions without having to put up with an entire winter's worth of depression should they fail. [UPDATE 2/17/2016: I didn't have a great time going to Chile by myself for four months, but it was definitely the right decision.
  • Bupropion (300mg/day sustained release)
    • I started this during the deepest depths of depression I've so far experienced, and it pulled me out.
    • This took care of most of the problem.
    • There was still enough of the problem left to be minorly crippling. I can be a student or hold a job during the winter if my life depends on it. I'm still almost constantly suffering in the winter, though. My concentration, creativity, and ambition are nearly totally shot from late fall through late spring, and I sink deeply enough into "my dark side" that compassion is just about impossible, and my most common form of positive emotion is cold amusement. I'm not going to go into any further details about having depression here. (I do talk a bit about it in these two posts.) Just trying to let you know approximately where I stand with it at the moment.
    Curing my social anxiety.
    • I had to get my depression mostly under control before this was even thinkable.
    • but they're really a nasty combination. Depression is much easier to deal with without social anxiety.
    • I'd probably be even better off if I weren't also introverted, but changing that is not the next thing on my to-do list. [UPDATE 2/17/2016: It is now, and I'm making progress that I'm bound to write about eventually.]
    • If you want to hear about effective interventions for social anxiety, skip down to "And so it began." in the "Lob's Theorem Cured My Social Anxiety" (which, in addition to being the title of one of my most popular posts, has been noted as taking the cake for the most Lesswrongian phrase ever). For the crazy mysterious thing that kicked it once and for all, read to the end. But I don't actually expect that last thing to work for other people.
  • Eating enough and regularly
    • It took me a ridiculously long time to figure out that this was a thing.
    • My mood gets way, way worse when I'm hungry. Unfortunately, all sorts of things come together to prevent me from eating.
      • For one, my stomach is apparently the last part of me to notice that I'm hungry, and for a long time I didn't believe people who told me I should eat, unless my stomach agreed with them. I suspect this has something to do with the bupropion, since it reduces appetite reliably enough to be prescribed as a weight-loss drug.
      • I was poor for a long time, so most of the food available was sufficiently uninteresting that it took pretty extreme hunger before cooking and eating was better than continuing to be hungry.
      • Cooking takes time and energy. Turns out there's some fairly tasty frozen food these days. I was not aware of this until recently.
      • Depression is not good for body image, and I didn't want to become what felt like "even more fat".
      • My body is apparently excellent at homeostasis; instead of losing weight, it mostly just shuts down all non-vital processes when I starve myself. And I guess it doesn't consider much of my brain necessary. I only actually lose weight from exercise. When I hadn't realized this was possible, I thought the fact that I wasn't losing weight was strong evidence that I was eating plenty.
      • In retrospect, I think the sensation of extreme hunger probably distracted me from the psychological pain in the same way cutting myself did, so I wasn't so quick to stop it. (Useful self-harm thing I learned recently: Sticking your hand in a bucket of ice water is really painful, but harmless for 15-minute periods. If you use a mixing bowl instead of a large bucket, the ice will heat up to a non-harmful temperature before it could possibly be a problem.)
      • UPDATE 2/17/2016: For the past month or so, I've been eating Meal Squares with whole milk for about 2/3 of my food, and it's wonderful. I no longer have food problems. I eat regular food when I feel like it, and Meal Squares when I don't. My energy levels are more stable than I remember them ever being, and I've lost somewhere between 5 to 10 pounds of fat (which I'm happy to lose) so far while still gaining muscle (I could do zero pullups a month ago, and can do 3 now). I think I could pretty easily stop losing weight by simply eating more, but because I have far fewer food cravings, and because my energy stays so even and it now takes at least an hour before I start to lose concentration when I'm hungry, it's very easy to eat *just* enough.
  • Daily or near-daily exercise.
    • It's been very important to use exercise I actuallyenjoy. For me, that's mostly meant running, and especially running outside. When I'm down, it's much easier to convince myself to go explore a trail through a forest than to slog along on a treadmill for half an hour.
    • When I injured myself and couldn't run for a long time, it was a huge problem. When I was on campus, I could largely make up for it by dancing. But in El Cerrito last winter, dancing was too far away. I turned out not to enjoy swimming enough, plus it was relatively inconvenient.
    • I ended up mostly doing weightlifting last winter, which was not nearly as good as cardiovascular exercise, but was better than no exercise.
    • When I finally got a bike, it turned out to be better than weightlifting, but not as good as running. Probably just because I don't like it enough to do enough of it to wear me out more than once or twice a week. If you like cycling, I expect this will work fine.
  • Learning to think of my pain as objectless when it was objectless.
    • It's easier to get stuck in a harmful obsessive cycle when you believe you're sad or angry about something. Early on, I'd let myself direct my feelings at a person or situation. Since I knew from experience that talking to the person or changing the situation wouldn't have much of an effect on how I felt, so I'd just agonize over the thing endlessly.
    • Installing robust anti-rationalization habits kept my beliefs in line with the truth, and the truth was harder to obsess over. It was too diffuse and abstract to really latch onto emotionally. (For more cognitive skills I picked up as a result of dealing with depression, check out Corrupted Hardware: Things I Learned From My Broken Brain.)
    • This had two main effects. One was that I directed what energy I had toward finding actions that had actually helped me feel better in the past (like exercising, going outside, talking to someone, or even eating chocolate).
    • But very often when you're depressed, there's just nothing you can do. You're going to feel like shit no matter what happens. I have what might be a weird way of dealing with this.
      • Most distance runners are familiar with the sensation of coming up against a wall of exhaustion. There are a few ways people push through it.
        • Some people distract themselves. They try to get really into the music they're listening to, or they think really hard about what they're going to make for dinner.
        • A second type of runner focuses on the goal. They have thoughts like, "Just another half mile and I can stop. That's just a few minutes. I can put up with this for a few minutes. Just stick it out 'til then." This sort of person usually knows how far they've gone, how long they've been running, and how long they have left.
        • I'm a third type. What I do when I encounter a wall of exhaustion is imagine that it will never ever end ever. I take note of the specific sensations I'm feeling--the burning in my muscles and lungs, the desperate desire to give up, the overall tremendous discomfort--and I pretend that this is just how my life is now, and how it will be forever. And there's nothing I can do about it. So I'd better just find some way to exist in this state. Maybe I can even adjust my appraisals of the sensations so I end up wanting to feel like this. (I should note that I am both a masochist and a submissive, so I may have unusual psychology that lets me submit to pain when others couldn't.)
      • So it might be that noticing you feel like shit and you can't do anything about it ought to be your cue to distract yourself. I used to do that, actually, but it wasn't really sustainable for me. It turned me into a workaholic, and I eventually burned out.
      • Or maybe it means you should focus on getting through this particular rough patch. "Just three more hours, then I can go home." I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be the kind of person who could benefit from that, but I'd not be at all surprised to hear that it does actually work for some people, given what I know of runners, and given how many times I've heard the phrase "one day at a time".
  • Having fun reasons to spend time outside.
    • It's really hard for me to just go outside for no reason when I'm depressed. And being told to go outside feels like a punishment. This may be a leftover psychological response to when my dad and his wife would tell my brother and I to go play outside (presumably mostly because they wanted to be left alone). I'm actually not quite sure what's up with this, because I like sunshine. *shrugs*
    • Excusesto go outside, however, work great. They don't even have to be good excuses. Walking to the store even though I could just as easily drive, for example. Going to the park to read with my toes in the fountain. (I live in California where we don't have real winter. You might substitute "building a snowman".) Going on adventures is always good for me. I'm especially happy to leave the house and be outside for a while if there's food at the other end of the adventure, so traveling to restaurants and coffee shops is great.
  • Waking up early.
    • This sounds like a no-brainer, since waking up early means maximizing your exposure to sunlight. It's likely this deserves a place at the top of the list for you.
    • For me, it's all the way down here because I've found it extremely difficult to maintain. One of my symptoms is insomnia, so waking up early often means getting little enough sleep that it's a huge energy drain.
    • Melatonin helped a lot, though, as did building an elaborate bedtime ritual. The bedtime ritual made it easier to go to bed on time, and the melatonin increased my quality of sleep so I felt more refreshed after fewer hours of sleep.
  • Translating feelings of despair into feelings of exhaustion.
    • This actually helped almost as much as exercise, but it took a really long time to learn. Well, that's not quite true. Once I thought of it, I could do it almost immediately. But I think it required a whole bunch of other skills that I had to learn first, like thinking of my pain as objectless, having conversations with personified parts of myself, and adopting new mental postures on purpose (like Val's "againstness" training.)
    • This is a super useful trick if you can manage it, though. I find it much easier to cope with being tired all the time than with being painfully sad or completely emotionally empty.
  • Borrowing my friends' brains.
    • It can be hard to be friends with a depressed person. Not so much because they're always being sad at you, as because there seems to be nothing you can do to help. Consequently, people seem to actually like it when when I ask them for specific small things that will actually help me.
    • In particular, what I have in mind is outsourcing straightforward cognitive tasks that you just can't manage right now even though you have to.
    • I don't recall a specific instance of countering depression with this just now, but here's one from anxiety. Once, when I pulled the car over because I was having a panic attack, I found that my brain wasn't working well enough to generate possible solutions. So I called a friend whom I trusted to make generally good decisions, and asked to borrow his brain. I told him what was happening, and asked him what he thought I should do. He told me to try to relax for a few minutes, then, if I couldn't drive, text him my location and he'd come by with another person who'd pick me up, and he'd take my car home for me. It's an obvious plan when your brain is working properly, but non-obvious when you're panicking or thinking through dense brain fog.
  • Modafinil
    • This actually makes me feel almost completely better. I end up a bit unstable, subject to mood swings, but I get what at first feels like a huge flood of ambition, creativity, and concentration that is probably mostly just my summertime self reemerging.
    • Unfortunately, I seem to become habituated after about three days.
    • It also makes me feel like like I'm on the edge of a panic attack for hours at a time, which is definitely not pleasant.
    • Bonus effect: It seems to make orgasms way more awesome. I have no idea what that's about. Many they're only awesome compared to wintertime orgasms, and normal for summertime orgasms. I haven't kept careful track of my experience of sex and sexuality across the seasons, except to notice that I'm almost completely asexual when depressed, and only mostly asexual when I'm not. [UPDATE 2/17/2016: Things are actually considerably more complicated than that.]
  • Commitment mechanisms
    • These are quite effective when I pick the right ones. Many a time have my past selves pulled my future selves kicking and screaming through necessary responsibilities.
    • They're also dangerous. Turns out if I force myself to deal with too many things, I do in fact completely crash. This is how I ended up taking an incomplete in every single class at the end of one semester.
    • I now use commitment mechanisms very sparingly and as a last resort. It's often better to simply not do the thing.
  • Happify.com. Happify is gamified cognitive behavioral therapy/positive psychology. I kept this up for about two months before I got distracted by the existence of HPMOR, CFAR, Lesswrong, Leverage, Eliezer, and the Bay Area. I think it was probably helping in small but consistent ways.

Things I've tried that haven't had perceptible effects on me

  • Fluoxetine (aka Prosac, an SSRI)
    • I tried this during the deepest depths of depression I've so far experienced, and it didn't pull me out. I've not tried it since then.
  • Spending half an hour in front of a SAD light box in the morning every day for three weeks.
    • Yes, I know. I notice that I'm confused as well.
      • It might not have been a powerful enough light.
      • I probably need more than 30 minutes.
      • I might need to surround myself in lights rather than having one sitting directly in front of me.
      • I might need to actually look straight at the light instead of reading in front of it.
      • I might need repeated exposure throughout the day instead of just one stretch in the morning.
      • I might need a different color of light--this one had a cold blue clinical color that made me sad.
    • Everything I've ever read about SAD says something in this direction should work. This is almost certainly worth trying if you haven't, even though I didn't respond to it.
    • Light therapy is something I'll be giving another shot. I would have tried modifications, like more powerful lights, the first time around, but the problem with ineffective depression interventions is that when they don't work, trying again is really hard. Similarly for trying other things after the first thing only worked a little bit.
    • UPDATE 2/17/2016: THIS WORKED! I'M FREE! I just needed more and brighter lights for a longer time. It's February and I've been 100% not-clinically-depressed all winter. I get sad sometimes, but only in healthy normal ways. I am now completely cured of SAD, as long as I keep my lights with me during winter. Here are instructions for building a LUMINATOR like mine.
  • Vitamin D supplements.
    • This is something I did give a second shot two years later. This time, I made sure I had the right form of D (D3), and the other vitamin needed to process it, namely K2.
    • Still didn't seem to help.
  • Reading letters to my dark side from my summer self. This actually has very perceptible effects, I'm just not sure if they're net good or net bad. I think the correct evaluation is probably "dangerous". I probably have a lot of things to say about what it's like to be made aware that you're two people with distinct value sets, but this is probably not the post for it.
  • It's important to note that the patient is often the last person to notice improvement. It's possible to be almost completely recovered and not know because you still feel like shit, despite the rest of your life having put itself back together. So these things may have actually helped, and I just didn't notice. On the other hand, neither did Eliezer when he observed the results last winter.

Interventions with net negative effects

  • Caffeine
    • This drastically improves my concentration, creativity, and motivation, though it doesn't have as strong of an effect on my mood as modafinil.
    • I've sworn it off, though, because I become not just habituated but horribly dependent very quickly. And I become quite a bit more depressed during withdraw than I'd be if I'd never touched the stuff.
    • It also starts fucking with sleep big time as soon as I'm dependent enough that I can't function in the evening without using it right up until bedtime.
    • Caffeine is largely responsible for the big crash that plunged me into the depressive state that finally started me toward purposeful recovery.
  • Alcohol
    • This was actually supposed to be an intervention for social anxiety, not depression. It was very effective for social anxiety.
    • But it increases my depression for a day or two after I use it.
    • I've stopped drinking alcohol entirely since noticing this at the beginning of last winter. UPDATE 2/17/2016: I now drink small amounts of alcohol occasionally, maybe two drinks a month. I'm still noticeably less happy and energetic the next day, but it doesn't seem psychologically dangerous like it is when I'm depressed.
  • Marijuana
    • This provided a much-needed respite when I used it occasionally during my workaholic period.
    • But I'm pretty sure it caused the same downswing that alcohol did. It's hard to tell since I'd often smoke and drink simultaneously, and I'd often stay up too late while stoned, then compensate with extra caffeine the next day.
    • This would probably be worth some more experimentation were it not for the fact that ever since I started taking bupripion, weed has given me all of the paranoia and none of the buzz.
  • Feeling guilty
    • I never would have thought of this as a possible intervention if I hadn't read Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, who apparently gets just about everything done no matter her mood by noticing how horrible she'd feel about herself if she didn't do it. (Also, her depiction of being depressed [1, 2] is DEAD FUCKING ON and beautiful.)
    • Feeling like a bad person has approximately zero power to deter me from something, and in certain moods it has the opposite effect.
    • Attempts by myself or others to make me feel guilty simply shut me down. My response is either, "Pfft, fuck this shit," or "Never mind, I'm no longer interested. I'll just sit here in a ball sobbing until I starve to death".
    • But hey, maybe it'll work for you. Mindspace is deep and wide.

Things I plan to try in the future

  • More, brighter, differently colored lights for longer periods and at different times of day. UPDATE 2/17/2016 This worked! See above under "light boxes" for more details.
  • Modifying my medication, either by increasing the dosage or by adding supplemental meds.
  • A variety of dietary supplements I need to research some more but have heard tell might help. UPDATE 2/17/2016: I've been taking Equilibrium. Unfortunately, since I started in the fall, I can't distinguish its effect from the effect of the lights. If you try this independently of other interventions, I'd love to hear about it!

Hope that helps. I'm completely open about this topic (and pretty much all topics, really), so feel free to ask questions.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Simulate and Defer To More Rational Selves

I sometimes let imaginary versions of myself make decisions for me.

I first started doing this after a friend told me (something along the lines of) this story. When she first became the executive director of her organization, she suddenly had many more decisions to deal with per day than ever before. "Should we hire this person?" "Should I go buy more coffee for the coffee machine, or wait for someone else deal with it?" "When can I schedule time to plan the fund drive?" 

I'm making up these examples myself, but I'm sure you, too, can imagine how leading a brand new organization might involve a constant assault on the parts of your brain responsible for making decisions. She found it exhausting, and by the time she got home at the end of the day, a question like, "Would you rather we have peas or green beans with dinner?" often felt like the last straw. "I don't care about the stupid vegetables, just give me food and don't make me decide any more things!"

She was rescued by the following technique. When faced with a decision, she'd imagine "the Executive Director", and ask herself, "What would 'the Executive Director' do?" Instead of making a decision, she'd make a prediction about the actions of that other person. Then, she'd just do whatever they'd do!

In my friend's case, she was trying to reduce decision fatigue. When I started trying it out myself, I was after a cure for something slightly different.

Imagine you're about to go bungee jumping off a high cliff. You know it's perfectly safe, and all you have to do is take a step forward, just like you've done every single time you've ever walked. But something is stopping you. The decision to step off the ledge is entirely yours, and you know you want to do it because this is why you're here. Yet here you are, still standing on the ledge. 

You're scared. There's a battle happening in your brain. Part of you is going, "Just jump, it's easy, just do it!", while another part--the part in charge of your legs, apparently--is going, "NOPE. Nope nope nope nope NOPE." And you have this strange thought: "I wish someone would just push me so I don't have to decide."

Maybe you've been bungee jumping, and this is not at all how you responded to it. But I hope (for the sake of communication) that you've experienced this sensation in other contexts. Maybe when you wanted to tell someone that you loved them, but the phrase hovered just behind your lips, and you couldn't get it out. You almost wished it would tumble out of your mouth accidentally. "Just say it," you thought to yourself, and remained silent. For some reason, you were terrified of the decision, and inaction felt more like not deciding.

When I heard this story from my friend, I had social anxiety. I didn't have way more decisions than I knew how to handle, but I did find certain decisions terrifying, and was often paralyzed by them. For example, this always happened if someone I liked, respected, and wanted to interact with more asked to meet with them. It was pretty obvious to me that it was a good idea to say yes, but I'd agonize over the email endlessly instead of simply typing "yes" and hitting "send".

So here's what it looked like when I applied the technique. I'd be invited to a party. I'd feel paralyzing fear, and a sense of impending doom as I noticed that I likely believed going to the party was the right decision. Then, as soon as I felt that doom, I'd take a mental step backward and not try to force myself to decide. Instead, I'd imagine a version of myself who wasn't scared, and I'd predict what she'd do. If the party really wasn't a great idea, either because she didn't consider it worth my time or because she didn't actually anticipate me having any fun, she'd decide not to go. Otherwise, she'd decide to go. I would not decide. I'd just run my simulation of her, and see what she had to say. It was easy for her to think clearly about the decision, because she wasn't scared. And then I'd just defer to her.

Recently, I've noticed that there are all sorts of circumstances under which it helps to predict the decisions of a version of myself who doesn't have my current obstacle to rational decision making. Whenever I'm having a hard time thinking clearly about something because I'm angry, or tired, or scared, I can call upon imaginary Rational Brienne to see if she can do any better.

Example: I get depressed when I don't get enough sunlight. I was working inside where it was dark, and Eliezer noticed that I'd seemed depressed lately. So he told me he thought I should work outside instead. I was indeed a bit down and irritable, so my immediate response was to feel angry--that I'd been interrupted, that he was nagging me about getting sunlight again, and that I have this sunlight problem in the first place. 

I started to argue with him, but then I stopped. I stopped because I'd noticed something. In addition to anger, I felt something like confusion. More complicated and specific than confusion, though. It's the feeling I get when I'm playing through familiar motions that have tended to lead to disutility. Like when you're watching a horror movie and the main character says, "Let's split up!" and you feel like, "Ugh, not this again. Listen, you're in a horror movie. If you split up, you will die. It happens every time." A familiar twinge of something being not quite right.

But even though I noticed the feeling, I couldn't get a handle on it. Recognizing that I really should make the decision to go outside instead of arguing--it was just too much for me. I was angry, and that severely impedes my introspective vision. And I knew that. I knew that familiar not-quite-right feeling meant something was preventing me from applying some of my rationality skills. 

So, as I'd previously decided to do in situations like this, I called upon my simulation of non-angry Brienne. 

She immediately got up and went outside.

To her, it was extremely obviously the right thing to do. So I just deferred to her (which I'd also previously decided to do in situations like this, and I knew it would only work in the future if I did it now too, ain't timeless decision theory great). I stopped arguing, got up, and went outside. 

I was still pissed, mind you. I even felt myself rationalizing that I was doing it because going outside despite Eliezer being wrong wrong wrong is easier than arguing with him, and arguing with him isn't worth the effort. And then I told him as much over chat. (But not the "rationalizing" part; I wasn't fully conscious of that yet.)

But I went outside, right away, instead of wasting a bunch of time and effort first. My internal state was still in disarray, but I took the correct external actions. 

This has happened a few times now. I'm still getting the hang of it, but it's working.

Imaginary Rational Brienne isn't magic. Her only available skills are the ones I have in fact picked up, so anything I've not learned, she can't implement. She still makes mistakes. 

Her special strength is constancy

In real life, all kinds of things limit my access to my own skills. In fact, the times when I most need a skill will very likely be the times when I find it hardest to access. For example, it's more important to consider the opposite when I'm really invested in believing something than when I'm not invested at all, but it's much harder to actually carry out the mental motion of "considering the opposite" when all the cognitive momentum is moving toward arguing single-mindedly for my favored belief.

The advantage of Rational Brienne (or, really, the Rational Briennes, because so far I've always ended up simulating a version of myself that's exactly the same except lacking whatever particular obstacle is relevant at the time) is that her access doesn't vary by situation. She can always use all of my tools all of the time.

I've been trying to figure out this constancy thing for quite a while. What do I do when I call upon my art as a rationalist, and just get a 404 Not Found? Turns out, "trying harder" doesn't do the trick. "No, really, I don't care that I'm scared, I'm going to think clearly about this. Here I go. I mean it this time." It seldom works.

I hope that it will one day. I would rather not have to rely on tricks like this. I hope I'll eventually just be able to go straight from noticing dissonance to re-orienting my whole mind so it's in line with the truth and with whatever I need to reach my goals. Or, you know, not experiencing the dissonance in the first place because I'm already doing everything right.

In the mean time, this trick seems pretty powerful.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Take the Time: In Memoriam

I just found out a friend of mine has died of cancer.

We were neighbors out in the country near a small Midwestern town for years. I composed a song about her and her family, back when I spent most of my time making music. It's been years since I've thought about it, but I've been playing through it in my head for the past half hour. I wrote it just before I left for college, and it's a memorial to all the good things about the way of life I was leaving behind. 

I always felt that her family really got the whole being human thing. They showed me a way of living and loving simply, with your whole heart. And in the song, I said I'd "keep their lesson with me".

I don't think I've done a very good job of that, I'm afraid. Just the other day, I said that I don't much value ordinary human experience, and that I'm only interested in preserving the possibility of extraordinary aesthetic experience. But when I think about Rosie and the others who inspired my song, I remember pure and simple friendship with joy, laughter, love, empathy, playfulness, authenticity--

and, above all, folk music. Not complex, sacred, ingenious music, like the masterpieces of the classical composers I worship. The simple, raw, imperfect music that is meant to be shared under ordinary circumstances with ordinary people. The music that celebrates ordinary human experience. The music that I used to write.

Sometimes my heart just isn't in this Saving the World thing, because I feel like most of the world is kind of crap, and that humanity has few redeeming qualities. But I guess I tend to forget that Rosie, and people like her, exist. Existed.

"Something to protect"? I thought I didn't have it. But I would have protected her, if I could have. And I would protect the people who laughed with her once. The people who sang with her. I'd protect the people with pure and simple friendship, with joy, laughter, love, empathy, playfulness, authenticity, and celebration. And I must admit: Even I can see that that's just about everyone, at least sometimes.

I haven't changed that much since high school. I just forgot for a while. I wish I could tell her that she reminded me. That even my memory of her is a beacon of humanism. It is very sad that I can't. I can only save the people who are left. 

There will be no cancer in the world I'm building. But there will be so, so much folk music.

You're not there to hear me, but I'll say it to myself, and to everyone who's listening, so I remember this time. I miss you, Rosie. I'm sorry. Thank you for everything.

"Take the Time" written 2007, video from 2008